America turns 'inn-ward' and Norman T. Simpson is showing the way

It was near dinner time. The fire crackled and flames leaped high in the great brick fireplace in the Red Lion Inn. Guests and townspeople came in from the cold winter night, and stood in front of the blazing fire for a few moments before going into the formal dining room or the more rustic Widow Bingham's Tavern. Later that night, there would be no room at the inn for more guests; most of the 50 rooms open in the winter had been booked months in advance.

About 75 miles to the southeast, guests at the Old Drovers Inn in Dover Plains, N.Y., ordered shrimp rarebit, curry or turkey, and fresh key lime pie in the rough-beamed candle-lit dining room. Again, the inn's three bedrooms were filled, and advance reservations were stacked up for months.

At the Beekman Arms Inn in nearby Rhinebeck, N.Y. - which along with Longfellow's Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Mass., claims to be the oldest continuously operated inn in the nation - friends gathered before the fire in the large entrance hall swapping yarns. History has it that George Washington once slept directly overhead, and from the charming surroundings, it's not too hard to imagine Washington himself walking in any moment. Even he would have had trouble getting a room tonight, though.

Americans are turning ''inn-ward'' as never before, and not only in the Northeast.

At Rancho Encatado in Sante Fe, N.M., occupancy is up substantially from several years ago. At the Lafitte Guest House in New Orleans, business ''has doubled in the past two years in the summer off-season alone'' says manager Steve Guyton. And at Virginia's Williamsburg Inn (which some hospitality experts consider more of a hotel than an inn despite its ''early American'' atmosphere), business is booming.

To understand why staying at a country inn has grown as popular as hot apple pie for many Americans, it's necessary to travel back to Stockbridge, Mass., and to Norman T. Simpson, often simply called ''Mr. Country Inn.''

For Simpson, with his warm, easy manner and broad smile, has probably been to more country inns in the United States, Britain, Ireland, and Europe than any man alive. Yankee magazine calls him the ''recognized authority on today's country inns.'' He is always either coming from or going to one inn or another, and thousands of people on both sides of the Atlantic follow the recommendations in his many books.

His most popular book, ''Country Inns and Back Roads,'' is now in its 17th printing. It profiles 210 inns across the United States from the Red Lion Inn in Simpson's own hometown to ones with equally inviting and intriguing names such as the Nu-Wray Inn in Burnsville, N.C., to the Captain Whidbey Inn in Coupeville , Wash.

Seventeen years ago the book started out with just 16 pages. Since then it has grown to nearly 500 pages, reflecting the growth in inn-going. ''The book came about as a result of my enthusiasm for staying in inns and a friend who was always kidding me about it,'' said Simpson as we chatted before a roaring fire in his Stockbrige home. ''My friend would always say, 'Where have you been recently?' so I sat down one day and typed out an answer. Then the idea of doing a book really was a result of that little joke, you might say. We gave the book away that first time.''

When he first began selling his book, he said, ''we had to explain what a country inn was to people, and many people were not interested! Innkeepers were delighted to find someone who was interested in what they were doing.''

Finding real inns - as opposed to hotels or motels that called themselves inns - was also a problem. Although definitions of inns vary, Simpson and other experts agree there are several common ingredients. Besides a certain distinct ''atmosphere,'' derived in part from its antiquity, an inn must ''draw people together'' in camaraderie and friendship.

''You tend to find friendship replacing many of the amenities of a large hotel,'' says Wayne Berens, president of Revere Travel Inc. ''The people who like to stay at country inns are also really looking for a kind of tranquility that they may not find in a large glass and steel hotel.''

Another reason for the upward trend in inn-going is ''value,'' according Mr. Berens and other travel experts. While some of the best inns may be considered expensive, their prices fall far below those for many first-class hotels in major cities such as New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C. The price of a room at the Waldorf-Astoria or Sheraton Center in New York or the Mayflower Hotel in Washington is nearly $100 a night. Some of the most luxurious inns do not come close to that.

But some of the best inns can be deceptively expensive once the cost of meals is added to the bill. And often, the ''best restaurant in town'' is the local inn, so the choice is limited. For example, a couple spending one night at the Old Drovers Inn and having breakfast and dinner should plan on spending ''$75 to

On the other hand, the room and meal rates at some inns are bargains because some innkeepers try to keep their prices as low as possible for their customers.

One of these ''inns,'' according to Simpson, is the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Besides its ambiance (due partly to its having been the home of the famous ''Roundtable'' of literary and artistic luminaries in the 1920s), this small hotel is family owned and operated.

Inns definitely aren't for everyone, as Travis Harris will tell you with some amusement. Over the years, several guests have packed up and left in a huff no sooner than they had settled in because they had expected more pampering or hotel-chain amenities. Drovers itself, incidently, has been the favorite of many famous writers and celebrities. Sinclair Lewis, the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist, was a frequent and (at times) very demanding guest.

Through periodic gatherings of the Independent Innkeepers Association, Simpson keeps in touch with the owners of the inns described in his books. He also receives regularly what he jocularly calls ''Dear Norman'' letters in which innkeepers give him their latest news on rooms and recipes. Since there is no substitute for firsthand knowledge, he visits these inns at every opportunity.

And which one does he like best?

''I refrain from choosing favorites,'' he says. ''Aside from the fact it is not a very good idea, it is also a very difficult question to answer. It depends on your mood and I find in almost every case that where I am is the place I like best - whether it's up in the Vermont woods or on the California coast.''

For him, finding the ideal country inn is ''a state of mind. If you bring that state of mind with you, you're going to find the perfect inn.''

Of course, some of the same qualities that lure inn goers, lure prospective inn buyers - sometimes to their regret, Simpson and other experts warn. Those qualities don't come cheap.

According to William Oats of the Country Business Services Inc. of Brattleboro, Vt., a real-estate brokerage firm, a ''good inn with an active business can cost from $20,000 to $30,000 a room.'' Oats ought to know; he's sold 38 inns, most of them in the Northeast. Norman Simpson says that the same inns which were selling for between $125,000 and $150,000 a decade ago are now priced at $350,000 and more.

Yet even at these prices, and ''in these days of high interest money, the enthusiasm about leaving the 'rat race' of the city and raising your kids in the country is something that appeals to a great, great many people,'' Simpson says. ''And a lot of them make it. I've talked to them, tried to dissuade them. But they've gone on, gotten their inn, and I've put them in 'Country Inns and Back Roads' five years later.''

No one has an accurate count of the inns that fail each year, but indications are it is relatively few. Simpson says that he can recall only one inn in his book going bankrupt. Yet, he and others say, some innkeepers don't hang their proprietorship shingles out for all that long either.

''While there is a lot of interest in owning country inns,'' Oats declares, ''a lot of it is misdirected. Many people don't know what they're getting into. The inn is a very romantic idea . . . but you can also get into trouble if your not suited to it.''

One key ingredient for success, Oats has seen from years of observation, is tailoring your inn for a certain clientele and ''not trying to be all things to all people.'' Thus, although good food is a drawing card for most inns, some inns specialize in gourmet fare; others boast fireplaces in every room; still others emphasize their location.

''But people who try to compete with the motel down the road are in trouble from the very start,'' says Oats. In Vermont, he notes, ''the inns that tend to be the most successful also have the highest rates.''

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